Closing Ceremony for Lucille Umbrage School.

On the Bus to Wonder: Burlington-Edison Joins Our Mountain School Community

This article was written in collaboration between Graduate M.Ed. students Adam Brayton and Matt Ferrell

The North Cascades Institute offers a great diversity of year-round programming, but few will disagree that Mountain School has been one of our greatest successes. For 28 years, the legendary program has been offering 3-day hands-on experiential education for children in the heart of the North Cascades ecosystem. Since its inception, Mountain School has grown from a small, rustic operation in the Newhalem Campground in North Cascades National Park to a full-service, multi-class production at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. Every year, nearly 3,000 students, teachers and chaperones from 5th-grade classes throughout Whatcom, Skagit and other neighboring counties make the drive up Highway 20 to our campus on Diablo Lake to engage in what has become a right-of-passage for many in our community.

Read our 2018 Mountain School report

When Mountain School brings on new students, we typically do so one school at a time. Annually, the program has a waiting list of 10 to 20 schools, with new inquiries every season. Typically, we may be able to add one or two new school each year. However, last year we did things a little differently. This fall marked the first Mountain School season to host students from Burlington-Edison School District. Groups from Lucille Umbarger Elementary, Allen Elementary, Edison Elementary, Bay View Elementary and West View Elementary all got the chance to come upriver from the Skagit Flats for their first-ever trip to Mountain School.

Making the space for all these new students was no small task logistically. Bringing Burlington-Edison to Mountain School was a 4-year recruitment process. Because the District required that all 5th grade classes in the district attend or nobody attends, it was a huge commitment to make space in our already busy schedule. Until recently, we didn’t have capacity to do that. In order to accommodate the whole school district, Mountain School added two extra weeks onto the fall season.This is the first time we’ve brought in new schools through an entire school district all at once. Not only did we get a new school district in one school year but in one season! 

Establishing a new relationship with an entire school district takes care and effort, and it’s all worthwhile once the kids step off the bus and into a trip filled with wonder.

West View Elementary Students exploring the microscope lab.

One of the favorite traditions of Mountain School is having the students write a letter to their “future self” about the trip. It is an opportunity for students to reflect on what they’ve learned in the North Cascades over the past three days. Here are a few of our favorites from our newest students in the B-E School District:

I hope to come to Mt. School again. It’s soooo cool here I want to stay for the winter or a year to see what it looks like all year around!”

– Student from Bay View Elementary.

West View Elementary Trail Group.

Yo quiero recordar las largas caminatas entre los arboles y el tiempo que pase en la orilla de la playa con [mis amigos],” or “I want to remember the long walks between the trees and the time that passed on the shore of the beach with [my friends].”

– Student from West View Elementary.

West View Elementary student enjoying a game of Camouflage.

Being in nature and really listening to it actually makes my worries go away.”

– Student from Lucille Umbarger Elementary

It isn’t just the Burlington-Edison students who fell in love with Mountain School, but we also received great feedback from faculty who were particularly impressed with the curriculum and importance of having their students at Mountain School.

I have observed many excellent classroom lessons, field trips, and learning experiences.  And there is no question that Mountain School was the most excellent of them all. Three uninterrupted days of experiential learning about the most pertinent topic of all – our relationship to our environment – indeed, our survival as a species. The curriculum is outstanding and the lessons are highly engaging and hands on. The children rose to the level of respect modeled and served themselves appropriately, expressed gratitude, and respected the food, staff, and each other.”

– Molly Westring, School Counselor, Lucile Umbarger Elementary School


What makes adding an entire school district important is that it allows for equity in the student experiences. Our goal of serving all of the communities downriver of us is made more complete when the experiences at Mountain School enrich the lives of students unilaterally. When these kids make it to high school and are making new friends, they may all have come from different schools in the district, or from different towns and from different backgrounds, but each of them will have gone to Mountain School. 

Now that each of Burlington-Edison’s elementary schools have had the chance to visit, we’re looking forward to building on our relationship into the years to come!

Mountain School Instructor Emily Bedker and her trail group.

Mountain School is currently training instructors for the Spring 2019 season, and is  starting up again March 4. While we’re enjoying the calm and tranquility of the freshly fallen snow up here, we’re looking forward to seeing a whole host of new excited students up here soon!


Bringing the Burlington-Edison School District could not be done without the dedicated work of Mountain School staff and our generous donors! Special thanks to the Discuren Foundation for making these life-changing experiences possible.

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